I conducted this interview with Alex Nall via email this week. Over the next couple weeks, I'll post interviews from all the creators in this line up.
I don't remember when I first met Alex, but I do know I love his work. I first really became aware of him when he put out his book, 'Teaching Comics' a few years ago. I've read a number of comics from teachers, but something about Alex's work stood out to me. A lot of those books focus on the kids - funny things said, sad things observed, but Alex focused on teaching in a larger way that really spoke to his own experience which, while universal, was extremely personal. Then he shot out like a cannon with 'Let Some Word That is Heard Be Yours,' his biography of Mr. Rogers.
And again, I've read so many comics biographies, but Alex's focus on the personal gave the story a depth and reliability that most comic biographies simply don't have. I gladly backed his work on Indiegogo, loaned him my son's trolley for CAKE, and was ecstatic to say, 'whatever you want to do next, please do it with Kilgore'.
Alex came up with a 100 page book about an election in a small town, where everything goes a little haywire. I haven't read the whole thing, but what I have is full of his characteristic tenderness towards his characters, and sense of optimism. Anyway, I asked him some questions, and here they are. Check out his work at alexnall.tumblr.com/
1. How long have you been a teacher? Why did you get into teaching? What do you love/hate about it?
I've been a teaching artist since 2013. I fell into teaching on a fluke. While working as a janitor at a fitness center, I went into a bar, sat down, doodled on some paper napkins and when my hostess saw that I was drawing, she recommended me to an after school program her step-mother was in charge of. I applied, having nothing really stopping me despite the fact I had no teaching experience in a public school setting, and incredulously, I got the job. I've enjoyed it for the most part, my favorite part probably just making comics with students, selling them at conventions, and telling them what people say about their work. Adolescence is a pretty dreadful experience all around, and I could tell it really made their day to know that someone out there was reading their work and appreciating it. What I don't like about teaching is having to sometimes play the role of "the bad guy". I'm a pretty non-confrontational person to begin with, so having to do things like giving kids time-outs, lectures, or raising my voice is always a challenge, but I know it's part of the job. I guess I'm going to have to get better at being Mean ol' Mr. Nall. A friend who is also a teacher recently told me that when he has to be strict, he tries to balance it by being funny too. Even students who know they're in trouble, can trust a teacher that's funny.
2. Why did you do the Mr. Rogers book?
I've always been fascinated by Fred Rogers' peaceful demeanor and approach to teaching kids. I started writing 'Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours' simply to find out more about the man I admired. As I continued to work on it, I thought it would be interesting to focus primarily on Rogers' role in educational programming, and compare/contrast it with my own experiences as an educator. This is the 50th anniversary of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' and it's been really rewarding to see him and the work he did on that show back in the news.
3. Who are some good comparisons for your work?
I'm not too sure. I've heard some people compare Teaching Comics to some of Kevin Budnik's diary comics, who I'm a big fan and admirer of. Teaching Comics started as a daily-diary exercise in the vein of James Kochalka's 'American Elf' strips. Without trying to "write like them", I'm influence by writers and artists that take on a story through alternate perspectives: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few.
4. Tell us about Lawns - what's the inspiration? What do you hope people get out of it?
'Lawns' is sort of an ensemble story about a small town in the rural Midwest, vaguely based off of the town I grew up in. The main conflict in the story is between a hermetic loner who refuses to mow his lawn and his brash and bitter next-door neighbor. There are of course consequences to this seemingly-non consequential grievance. I've always enjoyed fiction writing that explores a story from difference perspectives and this is my attempt to do that. My hope is that readers enjoy the story and can empathize with some of the characters and their situations.
5. Who are three cartoonists everyone should read more?
My friend Ben Nadler is a great cartoonist. His work is very imaginative and fun. His collection 'Sonder #1' is worth checking out! Isabella Rotman is making incredibly important and graceful work on sex-education. Her inking skills make my jaw drop. Ben Passamore writes and draws stories about race, class, and political action such a razor-sharp intensity. His stories should be shared and discussed. I'm very excited for his collected stories 'Your Black Friend' to be released this year.
6. What got you into comics?
I've been drawing and making comics/art since I can remember, but I remember a critical moment for me was discovering American Splendor by Harvey Pekar. It's been said before, but I was enthralled at how a normal everyday guy could write about his life and make it so intriguing. I'm sure that had a lot to do with the variety of artists Harvey worked with. Regardless, it was the comic book that changed my focus on making "funny" newspaper-style influenced work to more personal and examined reflections on moments in my life.
7. What's your dream project?
I'd like to take all of the folders of comics I have by my elementary students and have "professional" cartoonists adapt into complete stories. Kids really are the best writers because they have no filter and aren't bogged down by indecision or the judgement of others. If they want to write about a story set in Hogwarts and all the witches and wizards are talking fruits, nothing's going to stop them. Seeing something like that drawn by a more refined cartoonist with a certain style and technique would be really cool.
8. Who wins a fight, Mr. Rogers or Jim Henson?
Mister Rogers, an adamant pacifist, wouldn't raise a hand to Henson, especially if he was wielding someone as abrasive as Miss Piggy. However, the real debate has already been answered here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZsKqbt3gQ0
9. Who are you top three influences?
Ivan Brunetti's 'Schizo #4' is one of my favorite comics because it shows the artist searching for meaning in chaos- personal and cosmic, in a variety of styles and stories. I think about that book a lot whenever I start a project and embarrasingly use his 'deceptively-simple' shape figures as rough drafts for my own characters. While working on 'Lawns', I reread a lot of Los Bros Hernandez, especially the Palomar stories to get a sense of how to juggle so many characters in a shared setting- also how to adequately balance a page with a the right amount of white space and black spots. They're both the masters when it comes to that. Saul Steinberg is a major influence in how playful and nuanced his work is. As it's been said before, his work hovers on this delicate line of cartooning and high art that you can appreciate it from different angles. I try to remember what Chuck Jones' teacher told him when he was working on a drawing 'This looks good. It looks like you're having fun.'
Music influences (just for fun) -Bob Dylan -Patti Smith -Tom Waits
Literature -John Irving -Lorrie Moore -James Baldwin
10. What should people know about you or your work?
I'm also an organizer for Chicago Zine Fest. I'm been organizing since 2014 and am really excited for this year's festival on May 18 and 19. Being part of creating an event for creative folks is a rush of joy, anxiety, manic frustration, and laughs. Every year I meet more and more zine/comics creators and my life is richer because of it. As for my work, I just enjoy creating and sharing stories that hopefully people will also enjoy, find some meaning in, and I hope to keep getting the opportunity to do that.